Sir Henry Wotton



Poems by Sir Henry Wootton, ed. Alexander Dyce, Percy Society (London, 1843).


Poems by Sir Henry Wotton, Sir Walter Raleigh, and others, ed. John Hannah (London, 1845).

Pearsall Smith

Logan Pearsall Smith, The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, 2 vols (Oxford, 1907)


Sir Henry Wotton, diplomat and later Provost of Eton College, is known as a writer chiefly on account of a small number of poems, some of which were extremely popular in their own time and remain standard anthology pieces. He also conducted a very extensive correspondence and wrote several prose tracts.

The Verse Canon

The Reliquiae Wottonianae (London, 1651), a posthumous collection of Wotton's verse and prose edited by Izaak Walton, includes various poems allegedly found among his papers, fourteen of which are specifically ascribed to him. These poems were reprinted in Dyce (1843) and in Hannah (1845). New editions of Hannah appeared under variant titles in 1870, 1875, and 1892. Hannah's own annotated exemplum of his 1845 edition is in the Bodleian (13. θ. 132).

Two poems were added to the canon in Pearsall Smith (1907), II, 415-16. One, To the rarely accomplished, and worthy of best employment, Master Howel, upon his Vocall Forrest (beginning ‘Believe it, Sir, you happily have hit’), is printed in Hannah (1845), pp. xii-xiii, but no manuscript copies are known. The other, A Dialogue between Sir Henry Wotton and Mr. Donne (beginning ‘If her disdaine least change in you can move’), was printed in Donne's Poems, 2nd edition (London, 1635), p. 195, and was included in H.J.C. Grierson's edition of Donne (Oxford, 1912), I, 430-2. It appears in numerous manuscripts but is more generally assigned to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (see PeW 30-53). In an article in Modern Language Review, 6 (1911), 154-5, Grierson added one more poem to the canon: the verses addressed to Donne “'Tis not a coate of gray or Shepherds life” (WoH 168-173).

The entries below include two poems which both Hannah and Pearsall Smith classified as of doubtful authorship. One, A Description of the Country's Recreations (WoH 216-218), appeared anonymously in Reliquiae Wottonianae. The other, A Farewell to the Vanities of the World (WoH 219-257.5) was ascribed to Wotton in Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler, 3rd edition (London, 1661), p. 251, but is also ascribed in various sources to Donne, to Henry King, and to Sir Kenelm Digby. In most manuscript copies the poem is anonymous. Also generally anonymous is perhaps the most frequently copied of all the poems associated with Wotton — the touching couplet usually beginning ‘He first deceased, she for a little tried’, which was recycled and re-cast over the course of many years (WoH 175-198). The authorship of this couplet was complicated by the discovery that it is actually part of a longer poem, beginning ‘Here lye two Bodyes happy in their kinds’, which has also been attributed to George Herbert (see HrG 290.5-290.8).

Manuscript Copies and the Burley MS

No poem is preserved in Wotton's own handwriting, but a remarkably large number of early manuscript copies of his poems have survived, sometimes representing widely different versions. One copy is of particular interest because written by his fellow poet and admirer Ben Jonson (WoH 2). A fairly close connection with the author can be argued for at least two items (WoH 63, WoH 134), belonging to the Wyatt family with whom Wotton was acquainted. Above all, though, is the special connection with Wotton attached to what Pearsall Smith called the ‘Burley MS’. In the hundred years since Alfred J. Horwood first recorded this manuscript, in HMC, 7th Report (1879), Appendix, p. 516, it has had a curious history, which can be briefly summarised. The manuscript belonged to the Finch family at Burley-on-the-Hill House, Rutland, where Pearsall Smith examined it some time before 1907. He described it (II, 489-90) as a ‘commonplace book’ which ‘belonged to [Wotton], or to someone connected with him’, a manuscript in which were copied various documents relating to Wotton, as well as miscellaneous state papers. None was in Wotton's own hand, but some appeared to be in the hand of William Parkhurst, one of his secretaries. The manuscript was again examined by H.J.C. Grierson, who noted in his edition of Donne's poems (1912), II, cxi, that since his visit the house at Burley-on-the-Hill has been burned down and the manuscript volume had perished. In his account of the manuscript in Unforgotten Years (London, 1938), pp. 218-23 — an account which has now found a place in The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes — Pearsall Smith repeated that ‘shortly after the volume was returned to the place where I had found it, the house was burnt down and the manuscript destroyed’, a statement which serves neatly to point his anecdote about the manuscript. A partial transcript made for Pearsall Smith was, however, preserved by the Clarendon Press (who also owned the copyright of the volume), and has been occasionally used by editors of Donne, though curiously this too went astray before eventually recovered (it is now Bodleian, MS Eng. poet. c. 80). The statements of Grierson and Pearsall Smith seemed to be confirmed by the absence of the manuscript from the huge collection of Finch MSS transferred to the Leicestershire Record Office in the 1960s. Nevertheless an inventory of the Finch MSS made at some time in this century for the HMC still included the Burley MS. After various enquiries it emerged that the manuscript had been discovered, almost by accident, at the National Register of Archives in 1960 by I. A. Shapiro, of the University of Birmingham, who had then been given temporary custody of it. Mr Shapiro believed that it was subsequently returned to the HMC, but it was only after further investigations that the Burley MS was finally rediscovered, in January 1976, in a safe in the University Library at Birmingham where it had been lying for thirteen years. It has since rejoined the main Finch Collection now in the Leicestershire Record Office, DG. 7/Lit. 2.

The Burley MS proves upon examination to be a large folio of numerous independent documents bound together. By comparing it with relevant letters in the public records, Shapiro was able to establish that at least half the volume is indeed in the hand of William Parkhurst, who was in Wotton's employment as early as 1604 (see Pearsall Smith, II, 476-8) and who died in 1667. The volume was almost certainly Parkhurst's personal compilation. Those documents not in his own hand may reasonably be assumed of have belonged to him, the very last item (f. 360r) being a poem on the death of Strafford (1641), and perhaps indicating approximately when the volume was bound. A number of the earlier documents were evidently copied from Wotton's papers while Parkhurst was his secretary in Venice (1604-10). It is difficult to date particular pages with exactness, but the two poems by Wotton (WoH 1, WoH 62) appear in the volume among later poems and could have been transcribed by Parkhurst in the 1620s or even 1630s, long after he had left Wotton's employment.

On the matter of ‘lost’ manuscripts, one manuscript containing copies of two poems by Wotton is denied an entry below because, frustratingly, neither its provenance nor whereabouts are known, except that, for some reason, Peter Beal is in possession of undocketed photocopies of several pages. It would seem to be a small oblong octavo miscellany, in English and Latin, including probably coloured illustrations, somewhat in the style of a liber amicorum, one page of which is dated 17 September 1623. On two pages is a copy in a cursive italic hand of ‘The Hymn of Sr Hen Wotton’ (‘Oh thou great power, in whom i moue’) and on three other pages, in the same hand, ‘Tears wept at ye graue of by Hen. Wot:’ (‘Silence in truth would Speake my sorrow best’), subscribed ‘H W.’ There is also a poem, which lies outside the Wotton canon, beginning ‘The day of Death is iudge of all our other dayes’ superscribed ‘Sr H: V:’, the ‘V’ here possibly being a hastily formed ‘W’.

The Prose Canon

Wotton's various prose works are listed in Pearsall Smith (II, 413-14). The items that Pearsall Smith calls Table Talk (WoH 303) and edits from the Burley MS in his Appendix IV (II, 489-500) require explanation. His Numbers 35-145 (Burley MS, ff. 82r-6r) seem to be a series of remarks and anecdotes recorded by Parkhurst from Wotton's conversation in Venice in 1610. The list was clearly a constantly growing one, compiled over a period of time, and various marginal dashes, crosses, and pointers perhaps indicate those items that Parkhurst, or other readers, thought were particularly interesting. On the other hand, Numbers 1-34 (MS, ff. 255v-6), which are a completely separate list, are simply a selection of aphorisms copied out by Parkhurst from Sir Thomas Overbury's Characters (London, 1614; see OvT 27-37), and have no evident connection with Wotton. Pearsall Smith rightly excludes from the canon (II, 414) the essay Concerning Duellos in Spain, which is ascribed to Wotton in British Library Stowe MS 569, ff. 70r-2v, but which was evidently written by a resident in Spain; another copy is in the British Library (Harley MS 4176, ff. 37r-8r). An essay which should be similarly excluded from the canon is The Character of Robert, Late Earl of Salisbury, which Pearsall Smith found in the Burley MS and thus identified with a character of Salisbury that Wotton was reported of have intended writing in 1613 (see Pearsall Smith, II, 487-9). In other manuscript sources this essay is specifically ascribed to Cyril Tourneur (see ToC 2-6). Parkhurst's copy-text probably had no connection with Wotton, but if the essay had come to Wotton's attention this would help to explain why he never bothered to write a character of his own.

As with his verse, none of the recorded manuscripts of Wotton's prose works is in his own hand, although it is possible that certain items — including, perhaps, several scribal copies of The State of Christendom (WoH 296-301), if indeed this work is by Wotton — are transcripts of his autograph or at least authorised texts. On the other hand, several printed exempla of The Elements of Architecture (London, 1624) bear his autograph presentation inscriptions (WoH 259.4-259.8).

A copy of Wotton's widely circulated A Parallel between Robert Earl of Essex and George Duke of Buckingham was also recorded by Edward Bernard in Catalogi librorum manuscriptorum Angliæ et Hiberniæ [by Humphrey Wanley] (Oxford, 1697), as item 5 in a volume owned by Thomas Brotherton of Hey, Lancashire. Whether this corresponds to any of the manuscripts recorded below (WoH 262-295) cannot be determined.


No doubt many other diplomatic and state documents written, signed or owned by Wotton survive. These would include much in the National Archives, Kew, as well as items in the British Library, such as papers relating to his and Clement Edmondes's mission to the Hague in 1614-15 (Add. MS 48155, ff. 19r-42v), copies of which are also in Yale, Osborn MS fb 22. Perhaps the most extensive collection (not given entries here) is the hundreds of unpublished verbatim reports of Wotton's speeches now in the State Archives of Venice (see the Calendar of State Papers, Venetian, Vols X and XI).

Wotton's Library

Wotton clearly owned a substantial library, from which a relatively few of his books and manuscripts can be recorded today (WoH 303-310) — although no doubt others will come to light in due course. The biggest single extant collection of his books and manuscripts, not given entries here, is at Eton College, although they are mixed indiscrimately with other books and manuscripts in the college library and none bears any personal inscription. In James's catalogue of the college manuscripts (Eton's annotated exemplum) he associates nearly forty volumes with Wotton, his degree of certainty of ownership ranging from ‘very likely’ to ‘doubtless’. The volumes include works by ancient Roman and Greek authors, medieval and Renaissance Italian authors, lives of saints, and other miscellaneous treatises in Latin. Wotton's exemplum of an edition of works by Cicero is also recorded as being at King's College, Cambridge (No. 35), and he is known to have donated other books to the University of Oxford, including a Koran (see Pearsall Smith, II, 347).


An inscription by Wotton in the autograph album of Captain Francis Segar is recorded below (*WoH 311). Wotton wrote a much more famous inscription, at Augsburg in 1604, in the album of the merchant Christopher Flecamore or Fleckmore. Wotton's Latin joke to the effect that an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country (see Pearsall Smith, I, 49) would cost him his post. The album with the original inscription is not known to have survived, but no doubt numerous seventeenth-century copies of the inscription are to be found, including one in the Bodleian (MS Sancroft 98, p. 173), one in the Folger (MS V.a.306, f. 77r); and one made by William Camden, now at Trinity College, Cambridge (in MS R. 5. 20).

A few other miscellaneous items may be mentioned. A letter by Sir Henry Mainwaring (1587-1653), to Lord Zouche, dated 12 June 1620, concerning Wotton's best-known poem, On his Mistress, the Queen of Bohemia, is in the National Archives, Kew (SP 14/115/69). A Latin version of that poem is in the British Library, Add. MS 47111, f. 24v. Wotton's system of cypher, which is mentioned in a letter of 1623 (Pearsall Smith, II, 265), can be found in copies in the British Library (Add. MS 4277, f. 200r, and Add. MS 39853, f. 15r). The Latin epitaph on Wotton's tomb at Eton, ‘commanded by his will’, was copied by Sir Francis Fane (c.1612-80) in a miscellany now in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (ER/93/1, p. 141), and in a compilation by Robert Davies in Cardiff Central Library (MS 5.50, f. 14r).


It remains to note the most substantial body of Wotton manuscripts: his correspondence. Wotton's letters abound, particularly those written while he was Ambassador in Venice, letters which throw considerable light on the politics of early-seventeenth-century Europe. Pearsall Smith, who with some justification considered Wotton ‘the best letter-writer of his time’, knew of ‘nearly one thousand of Wotton's letters and dispatches’ (I, v-vi), and he printed the text of 511 of them. The main collections are in the National Archives, Kew; the British Library (including Add. MSS 12504, f. 260r; 22592, f. 80r-v; 34727, and 44848; Burney MS 369; Lansdowne MS 238;and Stowe MSS 168-175 passim); Eton College (MS 188); and in the State Archives of Venice, Florence, and Lucca (see Pearsall Smith's inventory, I, xxi-xxii, and II, 417-54). A number of previously unedited letters in the State Archives of Florence were printed by Anna Maria Crinò in Fatti e Figure del Seicento Anglo-Toscano, Biblioteca dell ‘Archivum Romanicum’, Ser. I, 48 (Florence, 1957), 7-40. Letters which Pearsall Smith cites as being in the ‘Hofbibliothek’ are in what is today the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna (Cod. 9737 z, 14-18; 6686, 4, fol. 56-7v, 59v). The ‘Clifton Hall’ letters are now at the University of Nottingham (Clifton MSS, Cl C 568-70); the Alfred Morrison letter, of 30 May 1617, is now at Eton College (MS 398, added to MS 188); and the ‘Knole MS’ is among the Cranfield papers in the Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone.

Yet other letters of Wotton, chiefly originals, some in copies (such as his widely circulated letter to the Earl of Portland), are to be found in All Souls College, Oxford (MS 218, f. 95r); Cambridge University Library (in MS Add 9276, item 9); Corpus Christi College, Oxford; archives of the Duke of Devonshire, Chatsworth House (in the Boyle Papers); Folger (MS G.b.10, f. 72r); Huntington Library; Lambeth Palace (MS 595, pp. 59-65); National Library of Scotland (Adv. MS 34.2.10, ff. 83r-5r); Pierpont Morgan Library (MA 2734); The Queen's College, Oxford (MSS 36, 37, 154); Rosenbach Museum & Library (MS 239/18); Sheffield Archives (WWM Str P); Trinity College Cambridge (MS R. 5. 5 (James 699), No. 68); and Trinity College, Dublin (MS 734, ff. 264r-5v); as well as some ninety-five letters by Wotton among the Trumbull Papers acquired by the British Library in 1989 (Add. MS 72333).

Facsimile examples of letters by Wotton appear in Pearsall Smith, II, facing p. 224; Greg, English Literary Autographs, Plate LXXXI(a); in IELM, I.ii (1980), Facsimile XXXIV (p. 564); in British Literary Manuscripts: Series I, ed. Verlyn Klinkenborg et al. (New York, 1981), No. 26, in Sotheby's catalogue The Trumbull Papers (14 December, 1989), lot 40 (p. 88); and in Dictionary of Literary Biography vol. 21, Seventeenth-Century British Nondramatic Poets, First Series, ed. M. Thomas Hester (Detroit, 1992), p. 289.

No doubt there are many more letters of Wotton in existence: for instance, an item once owned by R.B. Adam and later in the Hyde Collection, owned by Viscountess Eccles (Life, II, 2, 170, of which there is a microfilm at Princeton); letters which were among the papers bound in an interleaved volume of Henry King's Poems (1842) sold at Sotheby's, 9 December 1929, Lot 152, to Dobell (though Wotton's letters are not specifically mentioned in the sale catalogue); and a letter of 5 June 1604 sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries, 22 October 1963, lot 408.

Peter Beal